14 March 2021

International woman's day 2021

This International woman's day I was in the field with the students. I didn't have much time to pay attention to the occasion. And after the day in the field I had to do some things associated with the dissertation talks by the students. But I sure thought about it! And how could I not? It is hard to not think about gender if you are a woman in science. At least, that is my experience. And the longer you stay in science the more that holds.

When I went to university in 1993 to study physics, I walked straight into a male world. 90% of the students in my year were male, it was 95% in the next year up, and beyond that females were really hen's teeth. The staff was heavily male-dominated. I'm not even sure there was any female staff. Then I switched to geology. There the situation was not so dire; the student body was about 50% female and 50% male, and there was female staff. Not many of them, and not in high positions, but at least they were there. And that they were underrepresented, especially in the higher ranks, wasn't a problem, everybody (read: men) said; there were female students coming through now, so give it 20 years and the staff would be a lot more female to. Including the professors. And then gender equality would have been achieved.

Fast-forward to 2021. I am now of course employed by an entirely different University, even in a different country, but we are still talking natural sciences in a Western European country. So how have these 27.5 years panned out? Do we have gender equality now? Well, no. In our School, all the professors are still male (and white), and the head of School is male and the dean is male, and the Vice Chancellor is male. We have had large numbers of female students since forever, but the pipeline is still incredibly leaky, and women still struggle to get to the top. If you ask the men in power why this is, they tend to say things such as that perfect gender equality has been reached and that it is a mystery why are all these women leave, or that it is just a pipeline issue; give it time and the problem will solve itself. The former makes little sense, and the latter shows a worrying disregard for the actual data. Our equality officer has all the numbers and can just show that that is not the case! Women fall by the wayside left and right. In the years I have been employed here, one woman quit her job because it was making her too stressed. Two woman decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere; one outside academia, and one outside the country. Two women took voluntary redundancy in the last round of restructuring. So we get a steady stream of female junior lecturers, but a lot of them leave. Does that just mean they were never suitable for the job? Or does that mean the job is such that women feel insufficiently respected and appreciated, and therefore burn out a lot faster than the men? We have had men leaving too, but mostly to retirement, after having been a professor for years. We have only had one female professor I know of. And one male professor stormed off angrily, and one man left because his wife (in the same department) had had enough and she managed to find not just a job for herself on a different continent, but also for her husband. 

Is there really no man in a high position who thinks it is a bad thing that so many women leave, and that we are left with a clanging gender pay gap and power imbalance? I can't say I have asked all of our professors. There are quite many of them. And we had one, and he still has a honorary role of sorts in the school, who acknowledged loudly this was indeed a problem, I would go so far as to try and drag all the men in the Department to an event dedicated to gender problems in the University. But he decided to leave for Finland, and I don't think he has any say in the day-to-day running of the department any more.

And do we have any women that might become professors any time soon? Not many. The rank below professor is reader, and we only have two female readers. I thought it was only one, so I'm pleasantly surprised! Maybe the website is wrong. It sure is on other fronts. Several people who have left are still listed, and some people have the wrong job title. But I really do hope we indeed have two female readers. And one of them was in the line of fire when there were budget cuts imposed on us, but the other one wasn't, so her job is less insecure, and I could see her become our next female professor. Just one female professor is not enough in my opinion, but it's better than none!

So if the place is less pleasant for women than for men, then why would this be? One thing, of course, is the simple vicious circle of so many women leaving, and leaving the rest discouraged by that, and possibly feeling isolated among all the men. Men in high positions saying that there is no problem doesn't help with that. Do women go into a profession determined to not progress in their careers, and not get to the top? Not likely. Another problem is just that maternity and childcare issues are badly organised in this country. I know children in general have both a mother and a father, but the stats show that it tends to be the women who put in most of the work. So if you have a job that demands a lot of you, and academia does, then that extra load might push you over the edge. And a lot of men feel (or empirically find out) that is not accepted for them to ask to work part-time, and put the childcare hours in. Remember that in this country they can only take two weeks of parental leave! This gender issue is hurting men too. It's typical that in Norway, female professors in Earth and Climate science are not rare, and there new parents get a year off. And the parents can divvy that up themselves. 

And a third thing is the steady stream of small events that suggest women are not taken as seriously as a men. For instance, I have had lots of students rather aggressively challenging the grades I have given them. It has happened twice that one or several students fought their way all the way up to the Head of School because they figured they deserved a higher grade. And I have asked a male colleague, who says that men and women are treated equally, if he had any experiences like that. He hadn't! His grades are just accepted. Mind you, the students who fought my grades never got anywhere. The higher authorities invoked always agreed with my marks and my way of determining them. And I have heard this from other female colleagues as well. I know I don't have an exhaustive survey here, but such anecdotal evidence can already be disheartening. And then there are the instances where you say something, and it is ignored until a male colleague says the same thing. A line manager being a bit startled by seeing four women in a row in a meeting, and feeling the need to comment on it. He had seen four men in the row in a meeting countless many times. The assumption that male colleagues are the module leaders. Lots of incidents like this. All of them in themselves insignificant (except maybe the aggressive grade chasing of students), but if you experience things like that often enough, it does where you down.

I don't think the School of Ocean sciences will come anywhere near gender equality for many decades. I should ask our equality officer if we are actually making progress at the moment, and if so, when we can expect gender equality if we linearly extrapolate it.

Quite often, these things only become stark if you turn them around. Imagine one of my male colleagues losing their job in the next financial restructuring, and looking for a job elsewhere. Imagine them applying for a job in a school where all the professors are female, and the Dean and the Vice Chancellor too. There are plenty of male junior lecturers, but from there on they become clear minority. If you talk to the men they say they are just not taken seriously, and are not listened to. All the females in power deny that there is any problem, and say that men and women are treated perfectly equally. Would they take the job? I wouldn't think so. But if you are a woman in Britain in science, That is the kind of job you can expect. And it is disheartening. And I am sad that I have the choice between keeping battling and trying to make a positive difference, trying to progress in my career even though it does feel like a battle, in order to at least add to the number of women above the rank of junior lecturer. And to show the female students that it can be done. If I can do it, then so can they. Or to leave and give up, and embark on an alternative career in which being female doesn't seem to be a millstone. Mind you, we have the next financial restructuring already in sight so I might not have that choice.

After all these years in science, I must say I am attracted by the idea of a job in a female-dominated environment. Should these exist? Well, no, of course not. In an ideal world, no profession would be dominated by one gender. But I have worked in male-dominated environments for decades. I could use a break. And I still love marine science, and I still love teaching, and I regularly realise how privileged I am to be paid to stick my nose in fascinating science, and communicating it to the students; in short, I still love my job. But I wish I were doing it in an environment that is as welcoming to women as a it is to men, and I personally feel that as it is, it isn't.

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